“When Americans come, they always wonder why the Chinese are always in a hurry,” the man sitting across from me said. “They question why whenever a train or bus prepares to stop, everyone always pushes and shoves to be first in line.”
I nodded, being the perceived “Westerner” despite my black hair and eyes. “There’s no use in getting up too fast. It won’t make the train stop any sooner,” I said.
The man acknowledged my “typical” answer. “That’s what they all say,” he responded, “but what outsiders don’t internalize is that on most forms of public transportation in China, everyone competes for limited seats. If you are not one of the first people in line, you will likely have to stand or wait for the next bus. That’s why people are always conditioned to be in a hurry.”
I visited all the top destinations listed on About.com during my trip to China last summer, but the most enlightening parts of my trip did not occur while climbing the Great Wall in Beijing or cruising through the bunds in Shanghai. They took place during those long seven-hour train rides sitting next to strangers with whom the only commonality I shared was where we were sitting.
This trivial example can be applied to a larger global scale. While some Chinese practices may be different from U.S. standards, it does not mean that its people cannot be just as happy. I do not advocate for one standard of living over another, and it’s important to realize two separate ideologies cannot be easily compared. Each culture comes with its distinct traditions and values, and like the man on the train said, “You cannot compare Eastern and Western standards of happiness.”
On a smaller and more familiar scale, the same principle can be applied to our very own Penn bubble. In such a dense and diverse community filled with so many cultures with even more clubs to join, people to meet and events to attend, it can be easy to impose our own views on others’ decisions. In Penn’s pre-professional atmosphere, it is easy to question why someone would choose a major or become involved in a club they are not passionate about in pursuit of a perceived status or profitable career. The reverse is equally questionable to some: devoting all of one’s time to a single activity, forgoing other passions and friendships.
With organizations ranging from performing arts groups to cultural clubs to religious and spiritual groups, each group attempts to promote its own identity to distinguish it from neighboring groups. When we find a group whose identity does not align with our own, it can be easy to dismiss the views of the people in the organization, creating fractions within the Penn community. I sometimes hear fellow classmates talk about wanting to meet people from around the world before they leave college, yet they end up spending most of their time with people similar to themselves ideologically. This becomes even more problematic when our social identity becomes closely linked to the groups we choose to associate ourselves with, and it often becomes hard to free ourselves from the mold constructed out of our extracurricular activities. We are often told to find our niche at Penn, but that does not mean we cannot venture outside these boundaries to meet those who are different from us. In fact, these people can become our own “strangers on the train” who can teach us more about the world and ourselves.
In the end, whether you are an anthropology major or a mechanical engineer, and whether you choose to spend Saturday nights out with friends or inside your cozy apartment watching reruns of “Game of Thrones,” we are all simply trying to do things we enjoy. During those split-second moments when I question others’ choices, I quickly remember that everyone else — in their own way — is simply trying to seek their own happiness, just like me.
Yuqian Li is a College junior from Lexington, Mass., studying economics and political science. Her email address is email@example.com.